It's been a tough year for THQ. The video game publisher's stock has plummeted in a series of well-publicized flops. It has laid off workers, closed studios and replaced executives.
After a series of misses, the company needs a hit. It's desperate for a savior, and it looks as though THQ's white knight is the pale rider.
Following up on the moderate success of "Darksiders," Vigil Games and THQ have put out a sequel that focuses on Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
For fans expecting another title with War as the hero, the new protagonist is a twist. What's even more unusual is that "Darksiders II" takes place concurrently with events of the first game. While War is trying toclear his name after being framed for starting the end of the world, Death is working behind the scenes to save his brother.
This takes players deeper into the mythology that "Darksiders" hinted at toward its finale. It reveals that the four horsemen are Nephilim and that Death was the rallying force that stopped his powerful people from destroying all of creation.
Vigil was smart in turning to a new protagonist for "Darksiders II." Death plays differently, and he's a more compelling character than War. Unlike his hulking, serious brother, the Reaper is more agile and flamboyant. He uses a heavy dose of arrogance and sarcasm as he travels such realms as the Forge Land and Lostlight.
That difference expands to the combat and
Instead of confronting gamers with singular pieces of weapons, "Darksiders II" floods players with all sorts of blades and armor pieces. It's the "Diablo" approach, where fans have to keep heading into dungeons or saving money to pick up that one piece of uber gear.
Working in a more fantasy-oriented environment, the artistic team has created vibrant worlds where the imagination can run wild. In the original, the team's hellish vision never meshed with the ruins of earth. But unbound from reality, the artists have created compelling realms that invite exploration. They're huge and full of rewarding knickknacks, dungeons and secrets. But the real strength of "Darksiders II' is in the design of its dungeons. That was the hallmark of the first game, and it's more refined on the second go.
Part of the reason is that Death has new tools to work with; the items aren't all hand-me-downs from War. Players have to come up with clever ways to use the Death Grip or the Soul Splitter to open doors and advance to the next room. The dungeons are expansive and complex, but Dust, a crow, guides players to the right path and keeps them from getting lost.
That touch isn't necessary, but it does add a layer of polish that's evident elsewhere in the game. "Darksiders II" is balanced so that players feel like they're figuring out a puzzle on their own without being drawn to the solution. It's a tough feat of design, but Vigil executes it fairly well.
The only problem "Darksiders II" has is that the plot and its quests get redundant. Death always has to collect a certain number of items -- be it keys or souls or treasures -- to advance. Too many quests are set up this way as an excuse to run through those entertaining dungeons. If Vigil could create more spontaneous events to break up the monotony, it would have made this follow-up a home run.
* * * ½
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC